Sunday, April 19, 2009

You + Us = Bookstore, a Concept Further Explored

Recently I had a great conversation with a couple who came into Boswell Book Company to wander around. Both readers and neighborhood supporters, they found themselves still drawn to the Bayshore Barnes and Noble. Why? Because our science fiction and fantasy section was not up to the level of what they were looking for.

This is a common issue in many indies. Read this wonderful piece about Brookline Booksmith in the Boston Globe. They recently lost a nearby competitor when B&N closed, and one of the sections they are attempting to beef up is sf/fantasy. Thanks to several friends and relatives who forwarded me this article, both in hard copy and via email, especially my mom!

So they asked what our plans were, and I told them we do have plans to make it a better section (not necessarily that much bigger--we are a third of their size, after all) and I sent him over to Jason, who knows more about the genre in his pinky than I do altogether.

(An aside, do you now check spelling by seeing which variation has more Google hits? My nephew taught me this trick. So I didn't spell the word "pinkie" as a result. But on the other hand, it shows you how many words are spelled incorrectly on the internet. I'm sure you're shocked.)

Regarding this couple, they never came in and spoke up before because well, they didn't think we'd listen. I'm not really sure what the answer was before, but I'm trying to listen now. I can't do everything folks suggest because:

1. I have limited cash
2. Many suggests contradict other suggestions
3. I just don't always want to. But see the "storage" option that follows.

Sometimes I know that I'm going to make decisions that people don't like. Most folks really like the lighter paint color in the new store, but at least one of my favorite customers told me he preferred the old burnt sienna. Many people tell me how much they enjoy new and second-hand books integrated (a book is a book is a book) but I know there are people who do not, some of whom won't shop my store as a result. (Most toddlers, however, seem very happy with the decision--see photo).

I can't do both, and I've decided this new/used hybrid format positions us best for the future. But hey, I'm always willing to say I made a mistake. If it doesn't work, we'll try something else.

We're not going to open another location in the near future, and unless we can negotiate a better discount with the supplier (it dropped dramatically about a month before Schwartz closed), we're not going to be able to carry foreign magazines and newspapers. I'm not doing food service--you drank my lattes back in 1996 when I managed the Mequon Schwartz and you were not pleased. Well, I actually did have a few regulars but they were obviously desperate.

Another customer came in and pretty much wanted me to recreate the old Oriental Drugs on Farwell and North. That was a new one! Up till now, all I'd been asked for was a new version of the Shorewood Schwartz cafe.

Oriental Drugs, Oriental Drugs. Who wouldn't want to recreate that? Now I read an article that said the number of independent drugstores was inching up again due to young idealists involved in shop-local movements. Not that I've seen one sprout up anywhere I've been, but still. We do already have a CVS on the next block, but I don't mind someone competing with them; they don't even belong to the Downer Avenue Merchants Association.

But on the other hand, I really love Hayeks on Downer and Capitol. Why can't people go there? Oh, and one other thing; I don't have the money.

And another thing, I do pay attention to whether you buy a book after you talk to me. If you don't make an attempt to shop with at my store, your great ideas are put in my markdown bin. Sometimes people forget I'm a for-profit merchant, paying employees, taxes, and the products I sell.

The truth is that if I don't listen to suggestions, I'll miss out on the good ones as well as the bad ones. And I can always store some ideas for later.

When a second couple came in several days later and we had almost the exact came conversation about science fiction (voracious readers that wanted to shop Downer Avenue merchants but wound up going elsewhere because of our mediocre sf section), we knew this was something we needed to at least try. By the way, the one topic common to both conversations? The Gathering Storm, the unfinished manuscript from the late Robert Jordan. This is not the final jacket.

Final note: it turns out the dunking of my skin in hard-coat enamel (as described in our recent email newsletter) was not entirely successful. I do sometimes get defensive. Here's how to handle this: 1) Roll your eyes in an exaggerated fashion. 2) Say to anyone nearby, "Oh, that Daniel!" 3) Sit down and read a magazine (first shipment came last Thursday, with more to come this week.)


Unknown said...

Boswell has to survive and flourish so that these reports from the front continue. A+ in content, style, voice and--you'll protest this--rueful charm. xo Elinor L.

myra said...
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john eklund said...

I for one DO shop at Hayek's. And Downer Hardware, (well, Randy does, he is the man in the family in this area). I don't think you can become a re-incarnated Oriental Drugs, though what a wonderful project for somebody. My advice: don't go overboard on the whole "listening to customers" thing. We are fickle. Not only different people wanting different things, but on Monday I am apt to tell you I hate your new walls, and the next day I will say I love them. The cult of catering to every perceived whim of the elusive "consumer" is one thing that has gotten us into the mess we are in. We want a bookstore filled with great books and great people who will expose us to a few things we maybe didn't even know we wanted. Sounds like that's what we're getting, so I'm very happy and wish you luck.